by Emily Gehman
“I’m probably the only person who ever came so many times to this place . . .and never graduated!”
And at this year’s commencement exercises, Russell Phelps, 103, still won’t exactly be graduating from Clarks Summit University. He was never a student, employee, staff or faculty member, but as a longtime friend and supporter—and longest-serving trustee—of CSU, he will receive an honorary doctorate at Commencement on April 29, 2021.
An Early Decision
Russell Phelps was born in 1917 in Binghamton, New York. His business acumen began at a young age, when his mother agreed to pay her sons a penny for every dead fly in the house. But when she found the screen door open—a shrewd strategy of the brothers—they promptly went out of business.
The Phelps family attended Park Avenue Baptist Church in Binghamton. At 10 years old, Phelps understood and believed the gospel, and he, his brother and father were baptized together. When Phelps graduated from Binghamton High School as the president of the honor society, Baptist Bible Seminary in Johnson City was in its early years. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in business and economics at Wheaton College in Illinois.
During a revival on Wheaton’s campus, Phelps made a crucial decision.
“I dedicated my life to the Lord and agreed to go and do whatever He called me to do,” Phelps said in a video recorded for CSU.
Phelps completed a four-year degree program in only three years, and—after a stint of military service during World War II—he went back home to Binghamton, where he began a real estate career. He specialized in rent-to-own properties, and helped thousands of people find homes.
A Temporary Position
Not long after returning to Binghamton, Phelps received a phone call from Baptist Bible Seminary. The current treasurer, George Ives, had been drafted just as Phelps had processed out of the military, and the school needed someone to fill the voluntary role.
“It seemed to me like a step in a direction I told the Lord I’d be willing to go,” Phelps said. “He gave me something to do that I was trained to do and I wanted to do.”
The board of trustees told Phelps it would be temporary.
More than 60 years later, at 93 years old, Phelps was the longest-serving trustee at CSU, and later was named trustee emeritus. In those six decades, Phelps was a part of finding and securing the Clarks Summit, PA, campus and saw the construction of student housing, as well as his namesake, the Phelps Student Center, which houses the Huckaby Gymnasium and dining services. A plaque hangs in the hall in his honor.
In 1995, Phelps was the first recipient of the President’s Award of Distinction, presented by then-president Dr. Milo Thompson. Phelps has been well-acquainted with each of CSU’s ten presidents, providing both advice and friendship.
“His willingness to give counsel was always shared humbly and insightfully,” said Dr. Jim Jeffery, CSU’s ninth president. “As a friend and partner in ministry, I could always trust his integrity, honesty, wisdom and love.”
Dr. John Greening, retired national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches and also a recipient of an honorary degree from CSU, served alongside Phelps on the board of trustees.
“Russell has this unquestioned and unparalleled loyalty to the school,” Greening said. “He just had that positive spirit and that commitment to the big picture, and it was just a tremendous encouragement.”
A Lifetime of Ministry
Mike Brink (’91), pastor at Park Avenue Baptist Church, where Phelps has been a lifelong member, said that Phelps is always looking for ministry opportunities.
“Russell has a reputation in our community for kindness,” Pastor Mike Brink said. “He would say, ‘Okay, so how do we love these people well with what they’re going through? I don’t want to skip out on the day that God wants to do something special.’”
Phelps’ love for and faithfulness to the Lord runs deep, and it is evidenced by his compassion for people, his commitment to his local church and his kindness to Clarks Summit University.
“It has been a wonderful experience for me to be connected with this school,” He said in the video. “And I love the Lord so much for providing that connection.”
An Easy Decision
“We’re honoring Russ for his example of his testimony for Christ,” said CSU President Jim Lytle. “We’re honoring Russ for the way he’s conducted his business for Christ’s sake, for the example he’s been for us of local church service, and also for the many ways in which he’s blessed our school.”
Phelps is one of only 17 people who have received an honorary doctorate from CSU, and the decision to honor him was warmly embraced by CSU leadership.
“He’s definitely put his stake in the ground for his church, his family, and this school,” said Paul Golden, director of alumni and development. “Russell has been a guiding force at CSU for 65 years.”
The honorary doctorate recognizes and celebrates Phelps’ lifetime of hard work, dedication and ministry to the university and, ultimately, to the Lord.
“Supporting CSU over the years has allowed me to multiply my efforts to further the spread of the gospel by helping a multitude of others who’re pursuing a life of ministry,” Phelps said. “I am very grateful that the times shared together working to advance the cause of Christ here at CSU have culminated in this very special recognition. An honor of this type certainly exhibits a level of appreciation far beyond any expectation.”
Phelps will be honored at each this year’s five Commencement ceremonies that will take place between April 29 and May 1.
“This is a guy who has not only made a difference for our school, but he has made a difference for Jesus,” said Lytle. “And there’s nothing about the guy that we don’t admire.”